The Need to Adapt

Discussing the changing workforce with Louise Laforce of Colabor Group

Louise Laforce, corporate VP of HR and communications.

Louise Laforce is a people person. And it’s a good thing. As corporate vice president of human resources and communications for food distributor and marketer Colabor Group Inc. for the past four years, Laforce oversees 1,700 employees company-wide. Responsible for talent management, merger integration, employee development, leadership development, compensation, labour relations, and health and safety, Laforce has seen Colabor grow from $400 million in annual sales to $1.4 billion through acquisitions.

While some might think HR is a supporting role in an organization, Laforce knows better. She discusses how the human element plays an important role in a successful business strategy.

Advantage: What drew you to a career in HR?
Louise Laforce: It was a coincidence. I always knew I wanted to work with people, and thought psychology would be a good field. I studied clinical psychology at McGill University but found myself spending a lot of time studying the behaviours of rats. During the summer after my freshman year, I worked at a camp as a chief or head counsellor. My job was to be in charge of the other counsellors. I enjoyed the human-resource management piece of my job very much. When I returned to school, I gave up the rats for humans and studied organizational psychology and leadership. I was thrilled by the content.

What was your first job in HR?
I started at Coleco Canada, the company that made the Cabbage Patch Dolls, where I was an HR advisor. My first role as HR director came at Mediacom Inc., a company that sells billboard advertising across the country. It was there that I realized I was missing out on some of the business conversations, such as marketing and finance. I decided to undertake my MBA and completed an executive MBA in three years at the University of Sherbrooke.

What do you see as some of the essential characteristics of an HR director or HR department?
A good HR director needs to understand the business. I tell co-op students that when you are in HR, you are not a bystander. It’s your job to understand the business and add value. A good HR professional understands its company’s business and mission, its values, and the social fabric that makes up an organization’s DNA. Too often the HR department is seen as a peripheral function, but it’s really an important part of a company’s overall strategy. HR acts as an eye above and can provide a global picture of an organization. For that reason, HR directors need to deeply understand their company’s strategy, and design an HR strategy that aligns with the end goal.

How do you maintain a large workforce of 1,700?
You have to be strategic and totally aligned with the business needs and key drivers. It’s important to do things like walk the floor, as well as have discussions with decision makers. You have meetings with leaders, and you visit divisions. You listen to what people have to say. You have to be able to understand the human factor and what motivates and drives people. You need to be able to recognize people’s needs and be sensitive to them. It takes a human touch.

How do you stay on top of all of the trends in HR?
I network a lot with HR professionals but also with business professionals, and I read a lot. And each year, I give a course on leadership to MBA students at the University of Sherbrooke. The students are middle managers. I’m thrilled because it keeps me current on the latest developments. I see how leadership has evolved since I was an MBA student 13 years ago.

How has the workforce changed during your 25-plus years of experience?
It used to be that people put career first and would do whatever the company asked of them. That’s not necessarily true today. Home life has changed; men and women are sharing more responsibilities. They’re also not interested in sacrificing their interests for their jobs, either. People are looking to get much more involved in the decision-making process and to balance work and personal life, and that presents a challenge for HR. Companies have to adapt. We have to allow people flexible hours and an ability to work from home. It’s a challenge.

What advice do you have to someone who is considering a career in HR?
Develop a strong business acumen, an understanding of  business fundamentals. Embrace change management and develop your strategic competencies. Finally, the more you know yourself and the more you stay genuine to yourself, the more successful you will be. Don’t pretend to be something you are not. You will engage much more successfully if you stay true to who you are.